I’ve come to the conclusion that many people—most people who don’t paint, actually—have a really skewed picture of what it’s like to be a painter.
They have this romanticized idea that a painter strolls into his studio for an hour or two, when he’s ‘inspired,’ and just picks up a brush and dabs some paint onto a canvas and a painting kind of magically ‘appears.’
If you’ve ever tried to make a painting, you know how far that is from the truth.
In fact, painting is such hard work that I resisted becoming a painter for the first 30 years of my life. Yes, I always had ‘talent’–which means that I could take a pencil and draw some lines that were relatively close to the actual visual appearance of something, and people were impressed. But that’s a long way from being a successful painter.
I started studying painting when I was 15, and then only because my mom (who also has a love-hate thing going on with painting) talked me into coming to her oil-painting class one evening. Misery loves company, I guess.
This was in Thedford, Nebraska (population 300 at the time–now it’s even smaller), and a guy named Tom Talbot, a successful landscape painter from a nearby town, taught a painting class one night a week. I went that night, and I had fun, and I started attending regularly. Only gradually did I realize I had gotten hooked on something that would taunt and torture me for the rest of my life.
The problem with painting is there’s so much that can go wrong! Take mixing colors. This alone is a discipline that takes years to learn properly. Even today I still have trouble with it. And then there’s light and shadow, perspective, composition, anatomy. All easy when they’re working and impossible when they’re not. Not to mention the most vital prerequisite for a good painting: a good drawing.
I’ve been drawing my whole life and I still freeze up a bit when I face a blank sheet of paper. I know that’s probably hard for you to believe, but I think it’s true for almost every artist. Just because I’ve created thousands of successful drawings in my life doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten for a second the tens of thousands that WEREN’T successful.
This is what non-artists forget, or don’t think about. For every successful work of art that comes out of a studio, there are probably 5 or 10 (maybe many more) that never made it to completion. Those are the ones that had the artist feeling like a failure. I’m 60 now and I’ve been drawing for at least 55 of those years. And yet this morning when I sat down to sketch, my first few drawings were so bad I tore them up and threw them away. It’s almost always like that.
As intimidating as drawing is, painting is 20 times worse. This is why I say I love and hate painting. You can have a wonderful drawing and it looks like it’s going to make a great painting—and for any one of a million reasons it can fall flat. When a painting is not working, it’s the worst feeling in the world. You feel heavy, and hopeless, and worthless, and you just want the damn thing to be over with. Yet you have to stand there for hour after hour, day after day, trying to bring it to life. This, not the ‘a dab here, a dab there, voilà!’ model, is the reality of painting.
So why am I still torturing myself by being a painter?
When a painting is working, when the magic is happening… the sun comes out, birds sing. My heart opens. I smile. I feel like I could float. For a brief moment I’m actually embodying the world’s romantic vision of the creative artist.
And it happens 3, maybe 4 times a year, if I’m lucky.
Most of the time I’m in the trenches, doing the work, hoping for another of those moments of grace when everything falls into place and I feel touched by angels.
Obviously it’s worth it, or I wouldn’t still be doing it. But it’s worth it in the same way it’s worth it to fall in love even though your heart gets broken. The occasional ecstasy is worth all the pain.
What all this is leading up to is a report on my newest source of inspiration. Because if it weren’t for the inspiration I find from time to time, I wouldn’t still be painting. However: every once in a while I come across the work of another artist who so inspires me that I forget the pain and self-doubt and once again, I take the plunge.
That happened recently when I discovered the work of Ashley Wood.
As far as I can tell, Ashley Wood is an Australian who has been instrumental in creating several comic-book series with names like World War Robot and Zombies vs. Robots. He has quite a following but I had never heard of him until I ran across him online. He is one of the few artists I’ve ever run across who is as accomplished a painter as he is a cartoonist.
(A brief-but-vital aside here: cartooning is like painting but more so. People think it’s easy and fun because it looks easy and fun. It’s actually every bit as difficult as painting. Maybe more. I don’t expect you to believe me unless you’re an artist who has tried both.)
When I first saw Ashley Wood’s paintings online, I fell over. Who would have thought I would get so excited over not-very-colorful paintings of battle scenes and robots?
But it’s not about the subject matter. This guy can PAINT. And by that I mean his paintings are loose and chaotic and yet totally capture what he’s painting. I aspire to that. I love what’s called ‘painterly’ painting. This is painting that’s rich in texture, with energetic brushstrokes, and is clearly a painting, not a photograph. It’s all about using paint energetically. When I saw these paintings I almost levitated over to my easel. I HAD to paint something!
So I did. I started by doing a little copy of one of Ashley Wood’s paintings. How does he stay so loose? I asked myself. Copying his work was a good exercise. It loosened me up.
For a few days I did paintings that didn’t work out—maybe 4 of 5 of them. But that’s typical. It’s about warming up, getting loose, building your self-confidence.
Then I came across one of my photographs—an image of Brian walking across a rocky beach—that excited me visually. Normally an image with this much complexity (notice all those rocks!) is one I would be wary of. But a painter like Ashley Wood can take all that complexity and reduce it to a few brushstrokes and still convince you you’re looking at a rocky beach. I wanted to see if I could rise to the occasion.
Here you can see the progression. As I worked, I kept some printouts of Ashley Wood paintings tacked onto the easel to remind me to STAY LOOSE! It definitely made a difference. See the final product below.
After the success of ‘Koko Crater Day,’ I had a lot of energy so I kept going. There were a couple of ‘fails’ before I succeeded again, but I felt so inspired I didn’t let them slow me down.
I finally struck gold again with a very simple shot of Mike T. wading into the surf. One of the things the original photo had going for it was the dramatic lighting. A tip: dramatic lighting is always easier to pull off than subtle, multi-source lighting. The other positive: few colors. All I needed was some blues, some blue-greens, and fleshtones.
So I mixed the colors and jumped right in and because I was feeling so fearless, I was able to put the whole painting together in just a couple of hours! Hallelujah! It was fun and everything just flowed. I love the energy and ‘painterliness’ of the end result, which I titled ‘Into the Surf.’
I want to show you one more piece I did during this several-day period of fevered creation. I wanted to try a landscape, and I found this photograph I’d taken at Sandy Beach. The photograph is not that interesting or exciting in itself. I chose it because the composition is pretty workable, and there’s not too much complexity in the landforms. Also because it’s a spot where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years so I have an emotional attachment.
This painting just flowed, like the ones before it, because I was in a period where I was painting every day, and I was inspired, and felt very confident. It was less like working to create something than like just getting out of the way and allowing the creation to flow through me. That’s a wonderful sensation.
I call this one “At Sandy Beach.” Looking at this painting with some time separating me from its creation, I see things I didn’t see when I was in the process. There’s a softness to it I really like, and a feeling of space and lightness. These are things you can’t really do consciously, or at least I can’t—they either happen or they don’t. But as I keep saying, when you’re able to get out of the way and just allow things to come through you, magic happens.
But life is change. This wonderful creative cycle wouldn’t be a creative cycle if it didn’t have a beginning and an end. So a few days after completing ‘At Sandy Beach’ I felt that inspiration waning and although I tried a few more paintings, nothing really worked. I’m back in the trenches now, sitting down to draw every day and just working, working, working. I’m doing good work, just not feeling that magical energy of divine inspiration. But I know that if I just keep creating, the magic will come around again…